Familiarity breeds contempt, but not in Nick Welsh’s eye.
A sought-after university recruit following a stellar five-year career in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the Halifax-raised defenceman had one program in mind to where he’d continue playing.
“I have a long history with the Saint Mary’s coaching staff,” Welsh said of Huskies head coach Trevor Stienburg and longtime assistant Tyler Naugler.
“I’ve known Trevor and Tyler my whole life so the familiarity there was nice. I played spring hockey for Tyler every year since I was eight years old. And Trevor used to live behind our back yard. So I know them very well and that was a huge factor of my decision to come here.
“I’ve never been coached by Trevor before so that’s a bit of a different dynamic for me but I know what Tyler’s like behind the bench and what he expects from his players. So it’s nothing new for me. It’s made the transition at lot easier.”
Playing at home was a major factor as well.
Welsh played 329 games in the QMJHL, the first four seasons with the Shawinigan Cataractes before spending his last major junior season with the Moncton Wildcats.
As the Wildcats captain, Welsh finished second in team scoring with 66 points, fifth among all QMJHL blue-liners.
For Stienburg, it was a no-brainer to bring Welsh into the fold.
“I’ve known the family and Nick since he was in grade school so we’re really excited about him and his offence,” said Stienburg, entering his 22nd season behind the SMU bench. “He’s a great student, a great kid from a great family so we’re really happy to have him with us.”
Welsh is also coming off an impressive NHL rookie camp with the Buffalo Sabres earlier this month.
In the final game of the 2018 Prospects Challenge tournament in Buffalo, Welsh managed to score two goals in a win over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“It was amazing,” recalled the 21-year-old. “I had no idea what to expect going in. I felt a bit like a fish out of water during that first practice. But once the training camp set in, I felt pretty comfortable.
“I had a good camp and they said they liked what they saw from me so it was a really good experience.”
Saint Mary’s, which opens at home Friday evening against the Dalhousie Tigers, welcomes four other recruits.
Goalie Xavier Potvin, Dawson Theede, who split time between the Gatineau Olympiques and Bathurst Titan last season, and former OHL captains Logan DeNoble, ex-Peterborough Petes forward, and Jacob Friend, ex-Owen Sound Attack blue-liner.
While they lose captain Steven Shipley, the Huskies will return their top seven scorers from last season including Hunter Garlent, who finished third in AUS scoring with 41 points.
“There’s always an anomaly year where you have to go out and get 11 guys,” Stienburg said. “But turnover is healthy in the fact that you get a little bit of new life into the team. And the returning players have a chance to step up their leadership role.”
Here’s a glance at the other three Nova Scotia teams in the AUHC:
Acadia (18-10-2, third place, lost to Alberta Golden Bears in University Cup quarter-final): The anomaly recruiting year belongs to head coach Darren Burns, who brings in a bumper crop of 11 players to this season’s roster.
The key addition is former Guelph Storm defenceman Garrett McFadden, a two-time winner of the OHL’s Humanitarian of the Year award.
“He’s a tremendous kid who was highly-touted coming out of the OHL,” Burns said of McFadden. “His leadership qualities jump out. Leadership is crucial to our program and he brings that to the table.”
McFadden will play a key role on the Axemen blue-line which lost some leadership with the graduation of Matt Pufahl and Geoff Schemitsch.
AUS leading scorer Stephen Harper returns to help pick up the scoring slack with the departures of Boston Leier and Remy Giftopoulos.
“It’s a big turnover but it’s exciting and there’s a lot of positives from it,” Burns said. “Our recruitment was pivotal to our program with the number of guys we lost and the fact that we host nationals next year (in 2020).
“It’s a whole new experience for these guys and that’s always rejuvenating and energizing for the coaches and for the program.”
St. F.X. (22-4-4, second place, lost to Alberta in University Cup gold medal game): The U Sports silver medallists are seeking a fifth consecutive appearance in the national championship tournament.
The X-Men saw the graduation of three forwards — Brent Turnbull, Kristoff Kontos and leading goal scorer Michael Clarke and his 17 markers last season — and top blue-liners Jagger Dirk and Craig Duininck.
Head coach Brad Peddle has added six new recruits, including former Halifax Mooseheads goalie Blade Mann-Dixon, Saint John Sea Dogs captain Bailey Webster and Adam Holwell, who was a mainstay on the blue-line for the Memorial Cup champion Titan.
They join the likes of leading scorer Holden Cook and Chase Marchand, who last season became the first goalie to be named conference MVP since 1996.
“They’re all fitting in very well and all bring something different in their own right,” Peddle said.
“We still have a veteran group. We have a lot of guys back from last year’s team and we will have to rely on our veteran experience. We have a lot of guys who have been to two, three and four straight national championships. You’ll only go as far as your veterans take you and we will rely on that experience to push ahead in a very tough conference.”
Dalhousie (9-20-1, sixth place, swept by Acadia in AUS quarter-final): The Tigers have lost their team MVP with the graduation of all-star netminder Corbin Boes.
Bench boss Chris Donnelly has brought in three goalies to man the crease — Connor Hicks from the OHL, QMJHL veteran Reilly Pickard and former Halifax Moosehead Kevin Resop.
“We have three first-year goalies so that’s going to be a challenge for us,” Donnelly said. “We might not have the starter that we had before but we certainly have the depth that we didn’t have before.
“Every goaltender that comes into this league takes a little time to get used to the pace and playing against the older guys, going from facing 17-year-olds to 24-year-olds. We’ll be patient with them and give every guy an opportunity.”
Pickard’s brother Campbell joins a forward corps which features team leading scorer Colton Heffley, who was moved up front after two years on the blue-line.
Dal made a big push in the second half last season to earn its first trip to the AUS playoffs in seven years. Donnelly hopes the progress made last year will carry over in 2018-19.
“Quite honestly, we will be tested by the top four teams this season,” Donnelly said. “We’re hoping to make our gains in the standings against the teams in the lower part of the standings.”
Two games are scheduled Wednesday evening as the season kicks off two weeks earlier than usual.
Acadia visits Dal at the Halifax Forum and the Moncton Aigles Bleus (3-24-3, out of playoffs) are at the UPEI Panthers (11-18-1, fifth place, lost to Saint Mary’s in AUS quarter-final).
St. F.X. opens on the road Friday at Acadia.
The perennial favourite UNB Varsity Reds (24-2-4, first place, AUS champion, University Cup bronze medallists) begin play Friday evening at home against UPEI. UNB’s roster is stacked with the likes of all-stars Randy Gazzola on defence and forwards Kris Bennett and Chris Clapperton.